MLBAM Statcast Shines at All-Star Game, Revs Up for Season’s Second Half

MLB Advanced Media’s Statcast may have launched in all 30 ballparks just 3½ months ago, but the player-tracking and visualization platform is already evolving by leaps and bounds — albeit with a few hiccups along the way. With the launch of Statcast Leaderboards on MLB.com last week and increasing buy-in from TV-rights holders like Fox Sports, Turner Sports, and MLB Network to use Statcast during live MLB telecasts, the platform is well on its way to achieving mainstream relevance among baseball fans.

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Inside the Statcast production room during the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati

“We’re just so early days with what we can do with [Statcast] right now, but the rate at which we’re making improvements and enhancements is very satisfying,” MLB Advanced Media EVP/CTO Joe Inzerillo said during the game Tuesday night. “The rate of improvement is ahead of where I thought we would be at the All-Star game having just launched this package this year.”

Statcast, which debuted at three ballparks on a preliminary basis last year before expanding to all 30 this year, uses both optical tracking to monitor player movement (through support from ChyronHego) and radar tracking for information on the ball (from TrackMan). A series of HD cameras — spaced 15 meters apart — are installed in the stadium to capture stereoscopic video, and a 3D Doppler radar system pulls in about 2,000 samples per second of the entire playing field. Each player on the field is tagged (and distinguished from the six umpires), and the data is crunched to determine an almost limitless number of player and team metrics.

In the Spotlight at All-Star
MLBAM deployed two Statcast systems at Great American Ballpark this week for the MLB All-Star Game, with access to three Fox Sports game cameras apiece. Traditionally for MLB on Fox telecasts Statcast has access to high home, third base, and high third cameras, but also added high home, a fixed high home all-22 type wideshot, and center field angles for All-Star.

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The Statcast system IDs all players on the field and distinguishes them from the six umpires.

Inside a dedicated room at the ballpark adjacent to the Statcast rack-room, the Statcast crew (about five people along with a Fox Sports Statcast-specific producer) produced several versions of quick-turnaround replay packages featuring Statcast graphical enhancements with ChyronHego’s Replay Builder system. The Fox Sports producer then sent selected individual clips to be taken into consideration for the telecast. The Fox Sports production team could also take a variety of Statcast graphics live, including player lead-off distance and infield/outfield pointers to indicate whether the shift is on.

“We are here to sort of provide education, but, ultimately, these guys are figuring out how to turn it into TV,” said Inzerillo. “In a big production like this, which is obviously even bigger than your average Fox national broadcast, there are even more layers of EVS operators that are packaging this stuff up. Then that [goes] to the producer and the director so they know what they have coming in.”

Mike Trout's game lead-off home run Statcast replay package

Mike Trout’s game–lead-off home run displayed by Statcast replay package

CLICK HERE to watch Statcast clips from the MLB All-Star Game.

In addition, MLB Network used Statcast during MLB Tonight: All-Star Batting Practice on Monday and Tuesday.

Although ESPN had planned to deploy Statcast during its Home Run Derby coverage on Monday, a last-minute connectivity issue “between the vending of the data on [MLBAM’s] side and the consumption on ESPN’s side,” according to Inzerillo, resulted in ESPN’s using its own ball-tracking system for projected home-run–distance calculations and graphics rather than Statcast.

Leaderboards Launched, But Plenty More on the Horizon
Just in time for the All-Star break last week, MLB.com debuted the first phase of its online Statcast leaderboards in order to give fans a way to contextualize the deep data being generated by the player/ball-tracking system. Among the notable metrics are hitting categories like Exit Velocity and Projected Distance for Home Runs, pitching categories like Average Pitch Velocity, and fielding categories like Distance Covered, Top Speed, and Route Efficiency.

Aroldis Champman received the Statcast treatment during Fox's All-Star coverage.

Aroldis Champman received the Statcast treatment during Fox’s All-Star coverage.

“I think it’s been very cool in that we got to where we wanted to get to,” said Inzerillo. “We are now in a situation where the ability to acquire the data and the ability to quantify it is ahead of where we are in interpretation.”

While Statcast is progressing at a breakneck pace, there is still a long way to go in terms of interpreting and sorting the data into manageable metrics. For example, Inzerillo cited the example of potentially creating an “average lead-off” category for base runners. While it may seem simple on the surface, such factors as whether the pitcher is pitching from the stretch or intentionally holding the runner on first make calculating the metric very difficult.

“There’s all these differences that actually would alter that number to get the [information] you actually want,” he said. “One of the things that we’re talking about now is adding yet another layer of metadata where we can use machine learning to train the system to recognize these scenarios in the game and then basically sanitize the stats. So, if the runner is being held on, what’s his average lead [compared with] the average lead across the league? It’s really complicated when you think about it, because it’s not just the measurement of the metrics; it’s this next layer of actually teaching the computer the game of baseball to understand the contextual things in order to derive statistics from it.”

National Networks Hop on Statcast Bandwagon, RSNs on the Way
Since introducing the MLBAM platform in its MLB on Fox telecasts to begin the season, Fox Sports has gradually begun to include more Statcast highlights in its telecasts — with several packages making air during Tuesday’s All-Star game (including deeper looks at MVP Mike Trout’s lead-off home run and Aroldis Chapman’s blazing 100-mph-plus fastballs).

Statcast player-tracking graphics can also be taken live during the telecast

Statcast player-tracking graphics can also be taken live during the telecast

“The tools are getting better. The replay-builder tools didn’t look anything like this six months ago,” said Inzerillo. “This has all been day-in/day-out feedback working with our friends at Fox. With that feedback, we are taking an approach that is not necessarily the way that broadcasters operate but rather a very rapid software development. We are patching old development while we’re cranking out releases every two or three weeks. We’re just continuing to innovate at a much greater clip than you would typically associate with television. But that is required, and that’s how we’re making as much progress as we are.”

Turner, which launched its 13-game MLB on TBS regular-season package last Sunday, is very much on board, judging by its season-opening telecast. By Inzerillo’s count, more that 25 Statcast highlights made air during last Sunday’s Yankees-Red Sox game on TBS.

“Turner’s is a very graphics-oriented production, and it’s something they want to do, so it really fits,” said Inzerillo. “It naturally felt really good in their workflow, like they were just used to calling these things a certain way in the truck and the producer/director team and all the folks in the truck were, like, ‘I want that, I want that, I want that’ and they just kept hitting it.’”

Not surprisingly, MLB Network’s weekly Showcase game has featured its share of Statcast content, with several highlights making air each week.

Inzerillo said that MLBAM is also in continuing discussions with ESPN regarding implementing Statcast in its MLB linear telecasts.

It’s not just the national networks that are in on the Statcast party, however; full test deployments with several regional sports networks are already under way.

“We are working with a couple of locals right now to figure out the requirements. The flow is different: they have less equipment and less people in the trucks. So the thing that we’re sort of focusing on with them is less about fancy graphical elements and more about things like tombstones. So you can show a regular replay and then slap a Statcast enhancement on it to give you some metrics about top speed or things like that. We are well down the path, and we hope [to announce something] soonish.”

Brandon Costa contributed to this report.